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New fire chief promises action

(Published December 6, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

The District’s new fire chief has vowed to immediately implement changes in the fire department that will help protect firefighters battling blazes and increase the department’s efficiency, changes his predecessor was criticized for not making.

Interim Chief Thomas Tippett pledged to make sure safety devices that help rescuers find downed firemen would be part of every firefighter’s gear by Dec. 6 and to move forward with plans to upgrade the department’s radios. He also said he would look into hiring additional personnel to assist commanders at the scene of a fire.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams appointed Tippett Nov. 30 to replace Chief Donald Edwards, who resigned the night before amid questions about his residency and his handling of fire equipment and personnel shortages.

Williams has asked former control board vice chairman Steven Harlan to lead a search committee to find Edwards’ replacement. Harlan headed the search committee that recommended hiring Police Chief Charles Ramsey.

Tippett, a 31-year veteran of the department and former head of the firefighters’ union, was chosen over two other assistant fire chiefs interviewed for the interim post. He said he will apply for the permanent position.

Tippett was in charge of 54 fire companies in the District before he was named interim chief. A third-generation Washingtonian, he came up through the ranks of the fire department, along the way collecting valor commendations from the U.S. House of Representatives and the full Congress, as well as a valor award from the D.C. fire department.

Williams said Edwards informed him more than a month ago of his intent to retire. The mayor said he and Edwards decided jointly that the chief would retire after Thanksgiving.

Edwards’ tenure was marred by the deaths of three firefighters under his command -- starting with Sgt. John Carter, who died in October 1997 while battling a grocery store fire on Kennedy Street NW. He was the first D.C. firefighter in 13 years to die in the line of duty.

Last May 30, firefighters Lewis Matthews and Anthony Phillips were fatally injured while fighting a townhouse fire in Northeast Washington. A third firefighter, Joseph Morgan Jr., suffered burns over 60 percent of his body in that blaze but survived.

A reconstruction report of the blaze that killed Carter included 16 pages of recommendations for the fire department to improve the safety and efficiency of its fire operations. A report on the fire that killed Matthews and Phillips issued last month by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health criticized the fire department for failing to implement most of the earlier recommendations. The NIOSH report said the deaths of Lewis and Matthews could have been prevented if the original recommendations had been in place.

Edwards personally came under fire when WRC-TV reported that he and his wife own a home in Adelphi, Md., in addition to the apartment he rents in Northwest Washington. Despite the fact that Edwards pays D.C. income taxes, local media continued to ask questions about his residency status. As fire chief, Edwards was legally required to maintain residency in the District.

Tippett and his wife Donna live in St. Mary’s County, Md., but he said he would move back into the District if chosen for the chief’s job.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator